Nastar medal difficulty
I have skied NASTAR for a number of years (it's a great fun way to continue sibling rivalry with my ski buddy brother well into middle age.) We've now gone on to club racing, and someday I aspire to graduate to Masters racing, if I continue to get faster as I get older. (Older alone doesn't cut it. The masters guys are fast.)
My observations and experience:
(1) I've gotten faster, and my handicaps have improved over the last six years, but by far less than the proportion to how much I've improved. In '97-98, I was ranked 37th out of 575 recreational racers in my state; the last two years I've been number 1, but my handicaps have only slightly improved, even though I'm way faster now than I was in '98. (In full discloure, many, many people race way faster than I did in '98. As Warren Miller said, "Anyone who tells you he skis better now than when he was 19 wasn't a very good skier when he was 19...")
(2) I think Slatz nailed it with his observation that starting about '99, the pace setters got shaped skis and scoring against them got harder.
(3) NASTAR has changed its national pacesetter over time, against whom local pacesetters are theoretically matched. A few years ago, the pacesetter was Picabo Street, a retired female speed skier. This year it's Daron Ralves, a male low-FIS points monster even in GS gates.
(4) Frustratingly, every year NASTAR fiddles with its categories/ national championship qualification procedure. This year, in what was probably a customer relations mistake, NASTAR made it much harder to get silver and gold medals. (Last year, a 45-49 year old male got a gold medal for skiing on a short course in theory 27% slower than the national pacesetter. This year he'd have to ski fast enough to be only 18% slower than the national pacesetter to get a gold medal.) Given the shape of the bell curve, downgrading the medals that many, many customers get for running the course this year probably discourages them, and the average guy headed down a Nastar course probably doesn't go look at the Web site to understand the rules change: He just knows that two years ago on vacation at Breckenridge he got a gold, but now he got a bronze. Bummer. Let's go ski the bowl instead. (Or, worse yet, "Darn. I'm losing it. Maybe I should think of giving this up...") From a marketing standpoint, this latest set of changes seems, well, nutty is the charitable adjective.
(5) Nastar courses are typically really short, and the pacesetter runs them at the beginning of the racing day (typically, in the morning), which means (A) they disproportionately favor skiers with a strong start, and (B) the handicap/medals chart can be gamed in some conditions by running the course at the right time on the right day (new fallen snow in cold conditions--by the time the course is skied some, and it warms up from ten degrees Fahrenheit to twenty five, you're a lot faster than the 10 a.m. pacesetter who ran it in four inches of cold powder. Snow 14 degrees Fahrenheit and below creates more friction on a ski.)
If you want to ski Nastar at a specific resort, sometimes it makes sense to call ahead to make sure they're running the course. (A) in new fallen heavy snow, they probably won't run Nastar, period; (B) sometimes smaller resorts (like Ski Cooper) are running a town race or a league race instead of Nastar, as they only have a limited staff for course setting and timing; and (C) even in the larger resorts sometimes (but it's actually very rare--happened to me once in 100 Nastar days over the last six years) the Nastar course is reserved for some special corporate/ski group event.
If you're going to Colorado and you specifically want to improve your Nastar racing, Vail has two-hour Nastar racing clinics which are effectively semi-private recreational racing lessons with lots of gates to run, on a course that's more interesting than most Nastar courses. (Longer than most, flat top, steep to flat transition near the bottom.) Since the course (in the Black Forest Race arena.) has its own poma lift, you can do yo-yo gate skiing and get a lot of practice. Information:
2-hour NASTAR racing clinics, $60, 10:30-12:30; 1:15-3:15; (970)479-4072 or (970)479-4051.http://vail.snow.com/info/act.racing.asp
Or go to a resort that has a race course and get a semi-private lesson with a good instructor who will help you with gate-relevant training. A little instruction about a good racing start, a skate move to get up to speed quickly, skiing an early line, and skidding a little less would probably bump your handicap way down, and maybe put you back in the medals, even under this year's harder grading system.